The 2023 USFL regular season is in the books, and with that comes some highly anticipated postseason action.
On Saturday, the North Division took center stage in a big way, with the Pittsburgh Maulers outlasting the Michigan Panthers 31-27 in an overtime thriller. After a low-scoring first half, after which the Maulers held a 10-3 lead, things picked up in the second half. The teams combined for 27 points in the fourth quarter alone, before Pittsburgh ultimately came out on top.
The Maulers will advance to take on the South Division champion — either the Birmingham Stallions (8-2) or the New Orleans Breakers (7-3) — in the title game on Saturday, July 1 at 8 p.m. ET in Canton, Ohio.
Here are the top moments!
Here are the top moments!
Only need one hand
Michigan got inside the red zone on its opening possession thanks to a slick reception from running back Stevie Scott III.
On third-and-10 at the Maulers' 35-yard line, quarterback E.J. Perry's pass was thrown a tad ahead of Scott, but the latter reeled it in with one hand and then evaded a series of tackle attempts for a 30-yard pickup. With that said, the Panthers later settled for a 23-yard field goal from kicker Cole Murphy.
3-pointer in return
Pittsburgh answered Michigan's 3-pointer with a field goal drive of their own, as kicker Chris Blewitt connected on a 45-yard field goal for the Maulers. The two teams were tied at three apiece at the end of the first quarter.
Down you go
Michigan went three-and-out after the Pittsburgh touchdown. Then the Maulers got into Panthers' territory, but linebacker Frank Ginda ended the drive with a third-down sack of quarterback Troy Williams.
After Panthers tight end Cole Hikutini picked up the first down, Maulers defensive back Mark Gilbert forced a fumble and linebacker Kyahva Tezino recovered the loose ball. The Maulers were unable to turn the turnover into points, though.
Back the other way – again
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Perry was intercepted by Maulers safety Arnold Tarpley III. Pittsburgh turned the ball over on three of its last four drives in the first half.
Shortly after the interception, Williams hit wide receiver Isiah Hennie, who thundered through Michigan's defense for a 41-yard gain. All that said, Blewitt's 28-yard field goal was blocked by Noah Dawkins later in the drive, and Pittsburgh took a 10-3 lead into the halftime break.
Pittsburgh turned it over on downs in Michigan territory, and then the latter evened up the score.
Perry hit wide receiver Trey Quinn and Hikutini for a pair of completions that combined for 48 yards and got the Panthers in the red zone. One play later, Perry ran in a 6-yard touchdown.
After forcing a Pittsburgh three-and-out, Michigan took its first lead of the game.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Perry unloaded on a deep ball to wide receiver Marcus Simms, who stayed upright after reeling in the catch for a 72-yard touchdown. The Panthers led 17-10 at the end of the third quarter.
Along the way, Williams hit Ishmael Hyman for a 14-yard completion, with the wide receiver embracing contact at the end of the play. On the eighth play of the drive, Bailey Gaither got the call on the run for the 4-yard score.
Pittsburgh failed to convert a fake-punt run on fourth-and-1 from Michigan's 48-yard line. With that said, Murphy later missed a 53-yard field goal for the Panthers.
Blewitt drilled a 59-yard field goal with 3:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Maulers a 20-17 lead.
The Panthers regained the lead on the third play of the ensuing drive when Perry hit Quinn for a 55-yard touchdown.
MAULERS RETAKE LEAD
Michigan's Tyree Robinson was called for a personal foul on the kickoff, putting the ball at Pittsburgh's 49-yard line. Williams got the ball out to Groshek, who picked up 25 yards. Later in the drive, cornerback Josh Butler was called for pass interference, putting the Maulers in the red zone. Williams then hit Hennie for a 14-yard pickup. In the end, Williams hit Hyman for the go-ahead touchdown with 39 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
WE GOT OT
Michigan got into field goal range for Murphy, who connected on a 47-yarder to send the game to overtime.
Williams hit Mason Stokke for the Pittsburgh score in the first overtime, followed by Scott fumbling the ball going into the end zone for an unsuccessful Michigan attempt. In the second overtime, Williams ran in a score for the Maulers, which was followed by Perry's pass getting batted down at the line, ending the game.
Setting the stage
The top-ranked Maulers defense, which is allowing just 257.4 yards per game, will face a tough task against the E.J. Perry-led Panthers. Pittsburgh started the season 1-3 but went 3-3 down the stretch, finishing the regular season first in pass breakups (53) and takeaways (21), and second in points allowed (17.2) per contest.
Just like Pittsburgh, Michigan is led by its defense. The Panthers lead the USFL in forced fumbles (eight) and have 19 takeaways on the year. Star linebacker Frank Ginda led the league in combined tackles with 104, while teammate Breeland Speaks led the league in sacks with nine. Both earned All-USFL honors.
Turnovers will be key in this one. The Maulers turned it over a league-low 12 times during the regular season while the Panthers gave it up a league-high 17 times.